Nest Learning Thermostat – my experience so far

When the Nest Learning Thermostat first came out, I went through a couple of different modes of thought. Let me walk you through them.

  1. Bewilderment – I read the initial news about the thermostat and thought, “Tony left Apple and made… a thermostat?”
  2. Excitement – I realized that the design team had followed what appeared to be an Apple-like philosophy of simplicity and task-based design.
  3. Disappointment – I realized that it was $249, which was a little more than I wanted to pay (see below for more on that) and besides, I had brought home an off-the-shelf “smart thermostat” only to have to take it back for a couple of reasons I’ll outline in a bit too. Suffice it to say, my house didn’t have the type of power supply that most smart thermostats (but not the Nest) require.
  4. Confusion – I learned that I could in fact use the Nest in my house, even without that dedicated power line.
  5. Abandonment – I just decided that, for the time, I couldn’t justify the price.

But fate has a way of changing your mind. In the next two weeks, two important things happened. First, I received my energy bill (electric& gas). Second, my current thermostat (the one I had put back up after I tried to replace it with a WiFi enabled one), broke.

Let’s talk about that bill. We have gas forced air heat and electric A/C. So as the seasons turn, it’s more gas than electric in the winter (and I imagine more electric than gas in the summer, though we likely won’t need the A/C like we used to in Texas – most houses in Washington don’t even have A/C). My wife and I have had the conversations about heat & energy costs many times. She tends to like it warmer, I tend to like it cheaper. That bill, in November for October, if I recall, was abusive (the next few weren’t much better).

So let’s talk about that thermostat that broke. It was a reasonable model, a 7 day “programmable” model. It wasn’t original to our 20 year old house, but wasn’t new. The day it “went”, it decided to keep running and running and running… I went downstairs and even with it set to 71, it was about 86 degrees Fahrenheit in the house. I immediately disconnected it. Looking online, I saw this was a common (fatal) malady to this model.

I swear I hadn’t killed it when I put it back up. Or if I did, I didn’t do it intentionally.

I thought about going back to buy another basic thermostat, but my mind lit up about the Nest again. Maybe it would help reduce our spending by running in a more logical pattern without requiring the ridiculous passive/aggressive “programming” that most 3/5/7 day models do. I talked with my wife, and we decided it might be worth it. That WiFi thermostat I had bought and returned because it didn’t have what is commonly called a “C Wire”, which is just an always available power lead. Normally, the wires to your thermostat are only completing a circuit when the HVAC systems are running – completing the circuit is how the thermostat tells HVAC systems to do something. That unit offered one real bonus, which was WiFi access for programming and logging of temperature. It was over $100, and had the same basic design we’ve come to expect with 20 years of programmable thermostats. Perfectly <meh>. Uninspired, component-driven design.

When I thought about that unit, then, the Nest seemed expensive, but isn’t honestly that bad when you consider how expensive the off the shelf thermostat was, and the fact that I’d have to pay somebody $100+ bucks to pull a C Wire in order to power it – but I wouldn’t if I bought the Nest (guys will go to great lengths to try and justify a gadget).

So I went to order it. Only they were out. Nest stocked briefly at Best Buy, but what had apparently been anticipated to be three months worth of inventory sold out in a little over a week.

I went through every video on their site, learning about it, and decided to put my name on a waitlist, and created a Nest account, in anticipation. This is the account you use to interact with your Nest over the Internet from a Web browser, iPhone, or iPad. After a while (I figured it’d be a while, as I surely wasn’t early on the list), I got an email inviting me to order one if I was still interested. I had almost decided against it, but the chintzy $40 5-day programmable that I had bought to run the house in the meantime just looked so awful, and wasn’t doing anything to save us money (as my bill last week can show).

I have to say, Nest’s entire experience is incredibly professional. Prompt emails, fast Twitter responses, reasonably fast shipping, and a nifty, almost idiot-proof, compatibility test page. For a small company, they’re trying really hard to make a big dent.

The Nest arrived yesterday, and against my better judgement, I decided to install it – as the wall needs patching – unfortunately that’s going to often be the case when you’re replacing a rectangular thermostat that has likely been haphazardly installed with a much smaller round unit.

The packaging of the Nest isn’t a complete mirror of an Apple experience, but it’s close. No styrofoam, almost all recyclable packaging, with a thin plastic shipping cover for the thermostat and an Apple-like acetate package with two well-laid-out documents – one for installation, one for use. Unusually, the unit also includes a small, well-designed screwdriver with several replaceable heads. It also includes two optional mounting plates – one square, one rectangular – that you can use to cover up your wall from the damage likely left by your old thermostat if you’d like. I didn’t like how these seemed to spoil the look of the Nest, so I didn’t use one. Instead, we patched the wall a bit, and will patch and paint more in the coming week.

When you get started with an iPhone or iPad, you don’t have to deal with poorly documented household circuitry. Unfortunately, you do when you deal with a thermostat.

The Nest team has done an exceptional job of handling the “wild west” that exists behind thermostats in this country. It’s not perfect, but it’s close. I made two errors as I hooked mine up, and I had an old wire simply labeled “R”, not “Rc” or “Rh” (see the picture of the backplate on the upper right of this page. A little searching on the Web and then on their support site told me that it didn’t matter which I used, Nest would bridge them if it needed to. Awesome.

Once I had the wires hooked up, I connected the main body, and it powered up (cute little Nest boot logo and everything). The setup experience was beautiful. The minimalist user interface is clean and well thought out. I regret that I’ll never need to set up the wireless again, as the neat rotary-dial user interface they’ve built is very iPod-like, and remarkably easy to use. After it connected to the wireless, it asked me if I wanted to associate it with my Nest account (showing it on the screen). No username, no password to enter. How wonderful – somewhere along the way, they had set it up for my account. Surely you could change it, but that it was configured by default was a nice touch. I said yes, and finished initial setup.

Like I said, along the way, I made two errors – once most of setup had completed, it visually showed me a picture on screen what the wires looked like behind. My A/C wasn’t showing up – but because of the picture, I could see I had errantly connected it to the wrong lead. Fixing that quickly, it identified that I had something plugged in to the AUX/W2, but nothing plugged in to W1 – it told me to move that wire to W1. Fixed that, good to go.

I set the temperature I wanted it to be at, then set it again before we went to bed. The idea with the Nest is that for a few days, you treat it like a classic “manual” thermostat, and it learns your heating patterns (it then learns cooling patterns, if applicable, when that time arrives). Eventually, it figures out the optimal temperature and schedule for you and your family. You can manually set it to an “Away” mode, and it features a near and far-mode proximity sensor. The near-mode is to wave your hand over and see the current setting without turning the dial. The far-mode is to watch for activity. If it doesn’t see activity for a period of time, it sets itself to “Auto-Away” mode. All of these things combine to help save energy and money over a manual thermostat that winds up being stuck at one or two settings for a day or days at a time, or even a poorly configured “programmable” thermostat. You can check or change the temperature of your Nest over the Web, or using cleanly designed, native apps for the iPhone and iPad (as well as Android, though I’ve not tried that). You can also set it to Away mode, if you forgot to before you left for a trip, or turn the heat back up if a cold front hits while you’re traveling and your pets are home.

While it has only been up for one day, there are several things I really like about my Nest:

  1. Installing it was a breeze – even when I made mistakes
  2. The design is beautiful
  3. It just works
  4. The apps and Web site are easy to use, and do what they say – without trying to be some insane home automation solution

While I’ll have to wait until next month to post any financial analysis as to whether it made a difference or not in our bill, the other thing I’ve already noticed about the Nest is how much less it runs the HVAC equipment. The old thermostats we had seemed to trigger off/on intervals much more frequently than the Nest does – it just seems like it was running the equipment way more often (and today, for the record, was pretty cold – it was down to freezing last night).

One note on the C Wire – while Nest says the device will work without it in almost all cases, it does some interesting tricks to pull enough electricity through to charge the unit’s battery (yes, it’s basically an iPod Touch at some levels) and still run the WiFi. Most HVAC equipment doesn’t mind what it does to do that (it switches off and on at a very fast frequency that doesn’t trigger most HVAC equipment). In a small number of cases, the HVAC equipment won’t  be happy with that, and you’ll need a C Wire to be pulled through. As for me, it worked fine.

I really like the device, and I have to say I’m a fan (pun not intended) of the company. They’ve built a really unique new experience at a cost point that, while still premium and not an easy expense for many to justify, it might be able to earn back in time. Plus, it just looks good and works amazingly well.

I’m not a fan of most home automation because the user experiences are designed by geeks, for geeks, and require an aberrant amount of programming (and brain twisting) to make the most of. Not the case with Nest at all. It just works.

14 comments

  1. We love the Nest!  If you are looking for a trim plate to cover your old thermostat hole–check out our trim plates for the Nest.
    http://treetwoonedesign.com/collections/all

  2. I highly recommend using the C terminal no matter what type of system you have. The nest pulls power off the thermostat wires during a call for heating or cooling.http://www.thermostatforums.com/showthread.php?70-Nest-thermostat-power

  3. I’m aware of that – if it didn’t, it wouldn’t have a means to charge (unless you pulled a C wire). It’s unclear from that forum post what the detrimental effect of it is at this point, simply that it trips calls at such a fast velocity that most equipment (not all doesn’t recognize it or overreact). Can you elaborate any more on detrimental effects? Or is it supposition that something could be bad long term?

  4. A silly question but, if you don’t have an A/C unit, would the Nest be worth it?

  5. I guess in many ways it depends on how much you use your heating system. Obviously with the exception of Antarctica, you’re going to be using it half as often around the year as a user who has both heating and A/C. I grew up in a house in Montana that had only radiant water heating, with the classic Honeywell single setting thermostat. The big thing the Nest does (whether heating or cooling) is learn your temperature schedule, and mimic it. If you have a programmable thermostat, that’s probably good enough unless you want the remote capabilities that Nest delivers. If I was still living in a house that only had heat, I still might go for it. The device works exceptionally well, has saved us money (long term) and frankly is just nicer to use than any other thermostat.

  6. On my nest after about a month things started to go wrong. I I’d lose wifi connection, and then intermittently it wouldn’t have enough juice to kick on the compressor, and only the fan. I had to run a common wire for 320 bucks. All works now. Nests claim of not needing a common are not always true.

  7. Wish you still made this. Looks like all the products on your site have been “out of stock” for at least the past few months. 🙁

  8. I just got this in yesterday. After I had professional electricians connect it.. the Nest Thermostat is not reading the rH wire (states no power to the rH wire) and the nest technical support basically sucks. They just keep repeating statments such as “I understand” and/or “I am sorry you are going through this”. This is a peice of shit so far and I have a feeling it is going to cost me a lot of money to get this shit fixed since I have to heat and A/C tonight. I think this person above is some advertiser for this product or is being paid by the company or an employee. So far I am not a fan of this crap.

  9. Wow. I’m actually rather offended that you accuse me of being a shill. Take a look at the rest of my blog. Nobody pays me anything to write this. It’s my opinion. The whole site is comprised of posts that are my opinion. I don’t work for Nest, I don’t even know anybody there (and I live in the Seattle area – Nest is in Silicon Valley).

    I’ve heard similar statements lately that the quality of the device has gone down dramatically. Mine is a first generation device, the second generation is apparently not engineered as well. I’ve also heard that customer service has been unreliable or bad of late. I don’t know how their tech support was in the beginning, I was lucky enough to have it work right off the bat with my equipment and didn’t need to call or email – though I know many people who didn’t have the same experience.

    I’m not sure if your Nest is bad (possible), if you have incompatible equipment (very possible), or you hired a not-so-competent installer (also possible), but hopefully you can get it resolved.

  10. Agreed. I just put two Nests in a few days ago and would love nicer back plate options to cover up the remnant from my former T-stats.

  11. Thank you for the write up! I really want to buy one of these, but have been hesitant because of the C Wire thing (I don’t have one either). It’s nice to hear it can work out.

    How is yours holding up? How did the infamous software update this winter treat you? Also, would you mind sharing what wires you do have? I have R, Y, W, and G… forced air, and fairly old (20 years).

    Nest’s website says I am compatible, but it looks like that can sometimes still not be the case in application.I think what scares me the most are the folks who say things work out fine for a number of months, and then their system starts malfunctioning in scary ways (activating an A/C in freezing temperatures, or not activating the heat and causing pipes to freeze, etc). If you look at the Nest Facebook page right now, the comments are a little scary.

    Would love to hear that it worked out for you. Looking for that push to buy it myself. Like you, I love gadgets like this!

  12. I really haven’t had any problems at all. I don’t recall, but I’m pretty sure I had those same wires – house is about the same age.

    Note that I did have the first generation device, and the main thing I’ve heard is disappointment that the second generation device isn’t as good.

    Almost two years in, I’m still quite happy with the purchase!

  13. […] 2012, just after I received it, I wrote about my experience with the first generation Nest thermostat. As I said on Monday evening when asked how I liked my […]